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Finding a Top
Literary Agent

New writers often have the mistaken notion that if they’re good,
literary agents will come knocking on the door.  Well, not exactly.

by D. J. Herda

If you think selling a book to a publisher is the most difficult obstacle you face on your journey toward literary success, think again.  As few publishers as there are in the world, there are even fewer literary agents.  And of those, there are fewer still good ones.

So how do you go about finding—and landing—a reputable literary agent?  Here are a few tips to help you accomplish the nearly impossible.

1) Locate a few likely candidates by searching through various writers’ sites.  Or run a search on GOOGLE, using the term “literary agent.”  Better still, use the American Society of Authors and Writers new Writer's Toolbar—designed especially for a writer's needs—available free at this URL: http://amsaw.org/amsaw-toolbar.html

2) Write a brief introductory paragraph explaining why you have selected a particular agent as someone you'd like to have represent you.  This, of course, assumes that you have actually given some thought to the agent and aren’t simply shooting in the breeze.  Some possibilities: The agent is aggressive or has a good reputation with publishers or has a Web site that impressed you or has a reputation as being fair, honest, and hard working. 

Don’t lay it on too thick, though, and don’t exaggerate.  After all, the agent on the other end of the line has heard it all before and is probably already wondering, “How does he know?”

And another word of caution.  Some agents will promise you the world and deliver absolutely nothing.  Several years ago, I went through four different literary agents in 24 months, and not one of them had sent out even a single proposal!  The fifth one, more than two years after I had begun my search, turned out to be the charm.  So, make sure your contract has an escape clause...just in case you need it.

3) Follow up your opening paragraph with a short, snappy description of what you’re offering the agent.  If you’re a seasoned writer with several published books under your belt, you don’t necessarily have to have more than two or three chapters and an outline completed.  A good agent can sell your book from that.  If you’re relatively unpublished, however, you should have a completed manuscript to show the agent before beginning your search.

Keep in mind that your goal is to convince the agent that you have a marketable book.  Pitch it as if you were writing the back cover copy for a newly published novel.  You know:

Paula is young, sensuous, beautiful--a woman of strong will and unbreakable spirit.  Restless and eager for adventure, she and her husband strike out for the Mideast.  She wants a different life for the two of them: a renewed love for her husband and a renewed sense of herself.

But what she finds there is turmoil and upheaval.  As the countryside around her erupts in guerilla warfare, her love for her husband is challenged by her passionate Afghan lover.

Use this as a model for your book's description.  Notice that there are no editorial comments about how great the book is.  That will get you a pass quicker than anything.  After all, the agent already knows you think it’s a great book, so spare him the sales pitch and let the story sell itself.

And don't pass along any testimonials about how much your friends and family loved the book or how it’s a sure-fire best seller.  Agents don't care what your Uncle Ferdie thinks of your work.

4) Include a paragraph about you as a writer and anything that qualifies you to write your book.  List major writing credits, where you’ve been published, with whom you have studied writing, writing groups to which you belong, courses you’ve taken, and professional writers/editors who may have had input into your book.

If your book is nonfiction and technical in nature and you’re an expert in the field, by all means say so!  Publishers love producing nonfiction books by "experts" who also happen to know how to write.

5) Finally, keep your pitch short but pithy.  Send too little, and the agent will walk away scratching his head.  Send too much, and you run the risk of overwhelming him.  I’ve received the best results from a one-page query letter (the pitch) for fiction and a one-page query letter plus a one-or-two-page chapter breakdown (similar to a Table of Contents) for nonfiction.  Period.  For the greatest success, don’t deviate, don't elaborate, and don't get cute, because in the Big Bad World of Book Pitches, creativity is highly overrated.  Save that for inside your book.

All of which brings up the question: is a literary agent really necessary?

The answer?  That depends.  Most big houses won’t look at a new writer’s proposals unless they're submitted by an agent.  Some smaller houses (the ones that don’t offer advances, for example) may, but even they are likely to be more receptive to agency submissions.

So, if you want to find and sign with a reputable literary agent, do your homework, follow these few simple tips, and the rest (you hope!) will be history.



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